Written evidence submitted by the District Councils’ Network [FPS 082]

About the District Councils’ Network

The District Councils’ Network (DCN) is a cross-party member led network of 187 district councils. We are a Special Interest Group of the Local Government Association (LGA) and provide a single voice for district councils within the Local Government Association.

District councils in England deliver 86 out of 137 essential local government services to over 22 million people - 40% of the population - and cover 68% of the country by area.

District councils have a proven track record of building better lives and stronger economies in the areas that they serve. Districts protect and enhance quality of life by safeguarding our environment, promoting public health and leisure, whilst creating attractive places to live, raise families and build a stronger economy. By tackling homelessness and promoting wellbeing, district councils ensure no one gets left behind by addressing the complex needs of today whilst attempting to prevent the social problems of tomorrow.

Submission from the District Councils’ Network

The DCN have made strong representations on the Planning for the Future White Paper and a copy of our response can be viewed at https://districtcouncils.info/consultation-responses/planning-for-the-future-the-dcn-response/. Our submission to your call for evidence focuses specifically on the questions posed and builds upon elements of our response to the white paper.

Is the current planning system working as it should do? What changes might need to be made? Are the Government’s proposals the right approach?

The DCN do not agree that radical reform of the planning system is required to achieve the government’s objectives as set out in the white paper. We believe the existing planning system is already achieving or, with carefully managed change, has the potential to achieve those aims and objectives.

We are concerned that little research, analysis or any form of comparison has been undertaken on the current system, the proposed system set out in the white paper or alternative options that are in operation elsewhere in the world. The white paper provides no analysis of recent reforms to the planning system such as the extension of permitted development rights, the five-year land supply and the presumption in favour of sustainable development. We would want to see an assessment of the overall impact of such changes, as we believe it is reforms like these which have actually made the system more complex, and more remote from local democracy and decision making – reducing the trust of the public in the system. It is critical that any significant reforms to the planning system are grounded in evidence and research and not pushed through on a whim.

It is the housing delivery system that is broken, not the planning system. The government wants to deliver more homes but provides no tools for councils to ensure delivery or incentives for builders to break their absorption rate delivery models.

We do accept that the planning system needs some change and we support, in principle, elements of the white paper. The local plan process would benefit from some restructuring to streamline and simplify the process but not to the extent proposed. More effective engagement with a wider spectrum of the public is a key priority, and integrating the best elements of technology to not only streamline the planning system but make it more user friendly is welcome. A greater emphasis on design is supported and developers and housebuilders should be urged to put the value of good design central to development proposals from the very beginning – the onus should not just be on local planning authorities.

All of these elements can be resolved through changes to the current system. The white paper seeks to remove much local democracy from planning, ignores many fundamental practical realities and does not in any way seek to address the delivery of development which will remain beyond the control of local authorities.

National government should assess its role in the planning system. The extent to which the government interferes in detailed planning decisions and local plan making causes delays in the process and undermine local democracy. Also the unwillingness of government to set out any form of national spatial framework for growth, economic development and infrastructure in particular creates difficulties to plan at local/sub regional level. As noted above little analysis of other planning systems was considered as part of the white paper and it would be useful to know how national level plans in other countries help shape their planning systems.

Importantly any reform should retain the plan as central to the planning system and at its core should be local democracy and local decision making - to allow communities to plan and shape a future which best meets their needs. It is vital that any changes to the planning system are guided by the practitioners who are expected to implement those changes.

No planning system will work effectively unless it has the resources and skills required to make it work. Many of our members express concern around difficulties to recruit and retain planners in local government against the competition and resource of the private sector. Many districts have also lost design skills in recent years and there is a real skills gap if design is to be moved higher up the agenda.

Crucially the system requires political will to allow it work, without constant criticism and endless reforms. Now is not the time to radically reform the planning system as this will lead to many years of uncertainty to implement an untried, untested system. The planning system needs a period of stability to allow plans to be developed effectively and permissions granted.

 

In seeking to build 300,000 homes a year, is the greatest obstacle the planning system or the subsequent build-out of properties with permission?

The planning system is not a barrier to housebuilding. Local councils recognise there is a housing shortage and the need to boost the delivery of new housing. Local councils play their part in this - they allocate land and grant planning permissions, but they do not build the houses - that is the responsibility of the land owners and developers to deliver. It is completely unjust and impractical to hold Councils to account for housing delivery.

As we discuss later in our response the 300,000 figure is not based on any evidence. The lack of understanding of a national housing need figure is contributing to the difficulties in disaggregating local housing need figures.

Latest figures show that 2,564,600 dwellings have been granted planning permission by councils since 2009/10 while only 1,530,680 have been completed. Furthermore the number of houses granted planning permission each year has more than doubled since 2009/10 (176,900 in 2009/10 to 361,800 in 2018/19) yet the rate of completions has not followed pace, only increasing by around 70% in that period[1]. The current system is providing a framework for the supply of new housing, but the developers are not building those houses. Yet the white paper does not contain any provisions that would either incentivise developers to build or penalise developers for not building. It is telling that the white paper provides no actual evidence that the planning system is a barrier to development.

The country has not seen 300,000 homes built in any one year since 1974, and this achievement was in itself due to councils delivering 40% of new housing and was not sustained year after year. We do not believe a reformed planning system alone can achieve this - particularly as there are too many drawbacks to the system as proposed in the white paper. The most effective way to boost housing delivery is to actually build out sites that have permission to build. We recommend the government revisit the Letwin Independent Review of Build Out (2018) - particularly the conclusion that market forces alone will not deliver enough homes and the recommendation to strengthen the role and powers of local authorities in land assembly.

Reforming the entire planning system with the aim of merely allocating more land for housing will not, of itself, lead to more houses being built. To assume the revised system as envisaged by the white paper would automatically increase delivery is not realistic. We want councils to be given greater powers to help boost housing delivery such as through an effective and efficient compulsory purchase process to drive forward stalled sites, and the powers to impose financial penalties on developers where development hasn’t progressed. This could include charging developers the equivalent of council tax on dwellings if they have not been completed within certain timescales.

The government should be looking beyond planning to resolve these concerns, and to where the real issues lie in the delivery market.

 

How can the planning system ensure that buildings are beautiful and fit for purpose?

The DCN welcomes increased focus on good design in new developments, and equal importance should be given to the functionality of buildings to ensure they will work for the occupiers of those buildings. Recent events have demonstrated the importance of the need for access to sufficient good quality local open space as well as private gardens and sufficient well laid out internal space in homes – for home offices and space for children for home learning. Sadly too many new houses fail to provide good quality fit for purpose living accommodation - especially that delivered through permitted development rights. Homes and places should encourage and allow people to live healthy lives both physically and mentally.

The DCN would like to see a fundamental review of permitted development rights – we believe decisions on development should be open to local scrutiny to ensure the quality of new development can be fully considered. Minimum spaces standards – preferably locally determined to respond to local circumstances - should be mandatory on all new dwellings and not an optional extra.

As noted above the emphasis on driving up design standards should be applied to developers and housebuilders as well as local authorities. The use of national standard house types and standard materials does not help create local distinctiveness and context in new developments.

Also it is important that there are the skills and resources available to local authorities to embed design quality in planning. Unfortunately design skills have been lost in local authorities as a result of imposed budget cuts.

In terms of the proposals in the white paper - we consider there is a place for design codes in large developments or where there is a high degree of uniformity. But there is a risk that layers of prescriptive, rigid, standardised design guides and codes may only act to stifle innovative design, and result in an unsatisfactory objective assessment of a subjective matter. There is a serious concern that the combination of design codes and zoning will fossilize sites, prevent innovation (including self build and eco-homes) and result in inflexible rules which prevent delivery. It would also be a concern if other standards and compliance with policies – such as amenity space, environmental standards and highways standards should be relaxed for schemes which exhibit ‘beauty’.

Overall there is some lack of clarity over what beauty is in the white paper, and how it could be objectively agreed upon. Beauty and design are subjective and there is no binary yes/no to the concept of good beauty and good design. This is something the government must resolve if it presses forward with these reforms.

The emphasis on beauty and good design in the white paper also seems to stem from the starting point that ‘poor’ design is a significant reason for local objection to development. Whilst it may play a role, it is very rarely the sole or main reason for concern.  Lack of local infrastructure to support increased population, traffic generation and extra burdens on local doctors and schools are usually of far more concern to local residents. These issues cannot simply be addressed through design guides and codes.

The approach to design may be well intentioned in the white paper but the reasons for good design go beyond making development more palatable.

 

What approach should be used to determine the housing need and requirement of a local authority?

We believe the current approach based on a nationally determined standard method can not reflect the local circumstances of communities across the country, and we consider the design of the method to be flawed. As we have seen with the widely fluctuating outcomes of the method when different household projections are fed into the equation it is clear that this approach can not hope to provide stability and predictability into the process, and will hamper long term planning and plan production. The current method leads to some areas being set requirements that are either too low to meet local ambitions (such as infrastructure delivery) or that are undeliverable regardless of land supply. Either way it is setting up districts to fail.

The standard method does not take account of any strategy for future growth at a local, regional or national level other than an ambition to boost housing delivery to 300,000 plus homes per year. That figure is in itself a housebuilding target and not any form of assessment of need. The lack of clarity over housing need at a national level plays through to uncertainty at a local level. A starting point for government should be to have a better understanding of overall housing need at a national level before imposing unrealistic targets on districts.

The method also does not necessarily direct housing growth to areas of economic growth and infrastructure investment (for example the large urban areas benefitting from HS2), or areas which are best able to deliver higher levels of growth. The white paper makes no mention of jobs and economic growth in the assessment of housing need or requirements. This may lead to houses being provided in areas far from employment opportunities leading to unsustainable commuting, and mean areas of strong growth do not have housing requirements to sustain future growth.

Whilst we acknowledge the merits of a standard approach to assessing housing need – in that it is less time consuming than the previous approach of needs assessments and the method itself is transparent and easily replicable. However the existing and proposed standard method (set out in the recent planning consultations) do not provide an adequate assessment of housing need across the range of diverse areas in England. The ‘one size fits all’ approach of the standard method is just not fit for purpose.

The white paper refers to land constraints and the opportunity to use land more effectively as issues that will be factored in when establishing housing requirements in the reformed planning system. However under the current system in establishing a housing requirement figure local planning authorities also consider a range of other factors such as land availability, the capacity of the market to deliver, infrastructure (existing and proposed) and employment and growth strategies. Assessments of housing need/requirement are necessarily complex as they must address a wide range of factors for them to based on sound evidence.

The DCN consider the assessment of housing need should be locally determined based on sound and justified evidence. There may be scope for the standard method to be optional for local planning authorities where the method is locally determined to be suitable and reflect local housing conditions, or perhaps as a fall back option in some circumstances. The establishing of housing requirement should flow from the assessment of need and again be based on local circumstances and determined locally. We would not want the imposition of nationally binding housing need or housing requirements figures.

 

What is the best approach to ensure public engagement in the planning system? What role should modern technology and data play in this?

The use of technology is ever more important in all aspects of life and the DCN support options to look at further ways in which technology can be integrated into planning. There are already a wide range of ways in which planning is adopting new technology. This includes for instance online interactive mapping, 3d models and flythroughs of proposed developments, and online consultation programmes. The use of QR codes on site notices to enable direct links to digital planning information demonstrates how modern technology can be integrated with existing more traditional routes of public engagement. A key factor in the use of technology though is that it has to be fit for purpose, cost effective and usable.

Public involvement in planning is crucial to maintaining its openness, transparency and credibility. The DCN acknowledge that more effective engagement with a wider spectrum of the public is essential to achieve good planning outcomes that are supported by local communities. The DCN see the importance in the adoption of a range of communication methods, including the use of social media/online facilities, as well as more traditional forms of communication so that authorities are able to reach a broad range of different groups in a timely and efficient manner. Local authorities should have discretion to utilise the most appropriate methods to meet the needs of their local areas. This will allow local authorities the flexibility to engage with hard to reach groups such as those without access to technology and those who don’t engage with traditional methods of public engagement.

Whilst proposals in the white paper may make it easier to access plans it does not necessarily follow that this will increase the quantity and quality of public involvement. We feel the proposals in the white paper as a whole will have a negative impact on the ability of the public to participate effectively in the planning system. Elements of the paper seem to be in conflict - such as the desire to give communities and neighbourhoods a more meaningful voice in the future of their area yet removing the ability for them to do so by minimising public input to the specific development proposals that will impact them, and the ability to produce meaningful neighbourhood plans.

Whilst the aim to increase public participation in early stages of plan making is supported by the DCN the reformed process set out in the white paper has far less opportunities for the public to engage - a call for ideas consultation at the very start of the process and then one final opportunity when the plan is already written and submitted to the Secretary of State. It is only the latter stage where the public actually see a draft plan, and this is only once it has been submitted so there is in effect little opportunity to influence the development of the plan. Local people will have less meaningful input into the development of local plans.

Overall we believe the reforms in the white paper as drafted will reduce the opportunity for effective public engagement in planning. Local people should retain a right to be able to meaningfully comment on planning applications, whilst continuous engagement with the development of local plans is essential. In both aspects there are potential to improve the process – including through the use of technology - and we would welcome an opportunity to engage with government in general on better public involvement in planning.

 

How can the planning system ensure adequate and reasonable protection for areas and buildings of environmental, historical, and architectural importance?

It is noted that comparatively little of the content of the white paper specifically refers to these issues. The planning system plays a central role in protecting, preserving and enhancing both our natural and built environment, and we welcome the intention in the white paper that the future planning system will continue to play an enhanced role in the governance of our environment. However the paper does not contain many clear proposals for how a new system would facilitate this and we would want to see more details as reforms progress.

Some of those proposals which are highlighted in the paper worryingly seem to amount to a watering down of protection and governance. For example an exemption for some listed building consents would require careful management to reduce risk of harm (intentional or accidental) to our historic environment. Also whilst we support a review of the sustainability appraisal process it is important that any changes do not simplify the process to the extent it loses its purpose and the benefits it brings to environmental management through planning.

Finally headline grabbing commitments, however laudable, for street lined trees in new development do not deal with the very real issues we are facing with climate change. For a start the government needs to be more ambitious in its desire for zero carbon homes.

 

What changes, if any, are needed to the green belt?

Planning policy should be evidence based and reviewed periodically to ensure it remains appropriate and fit for purpose. This should apply to local planning policy and national planning policy. There has however been a reluctance to review national green belt policy which has remained relatively untouched since the 1940s.

It is recognised that green belts play an important role in preventing urban sprawl and protecting important areas of countryside. However an alternative viewpoint is that green belt policy restricts the supply of new homes in the areas where it is quite often most in need - close to our major cities. This in turn may have a number of further consequences including the cost of housing and the pricing out of non residential uses from urban areas subject to green belts. Green belt may also be creating unsustainable transport/commuting patterns by restricting development in sustainable well connected locations and pushing it beyond the green belt.

This perhaps takes on greater importance in the light of the proposed reforms to the planning system to help boost the delivery of new housing. Along with any reforms of the planning system it would be sensible to undertake an objective review of national green belt policy to ensure it remains appropriate, fit for purpose and that it reflects the government’s aims and objectives for the planning system as set out in the white paper. For instance it could explore alternative models focused on networks of well connected, high quality accessible and managed open spaces in contrast to the current blanket approach of green belts.

 

What progress has been made since the Committee’s 2018 report on capturing land value and how might the proposals improve outcomes? What further steps might also be needed?

In our evidence submitted to the committees report on land value we highlighted the following issues-

 

Overall little has changed in that time to address our concerns. The system still weighs heavily in favour of landowners and developers whilst local authorities have not been granted any significant additional powers to resolve these issues. Viability arguments remains a key area in which contributions from planning permissions are suppressed.

We would support a system where it is clear what contributions will be required and this should be set out within the development plan. In theory at least these requirements should then be reflected in land acquisition costs. It is noted that the revised 2019 NPPF (paragraph 57) reflects this approach in that it states where up to date policies set out required contributions, planning applications should be assumed to be viable. However the remainder of the paragraph provides too much flexibility allowing applicants to negate this. This is one area we would recommend is strengthened so that is clear at the outset in the development plan what will be expected to be contributed from a development (based on plan viability and strong evidence) with this only negotiable in limited circumstances. This would provide greater certainty to the local authority, the landowner, the developer and the wider public. Currently CIL and S106 are fairly limited in their effectiveness of capturing land value uplift

We have noted above we want to see local authorities granted stronger CPO powers with a reformed, streamlined CPO process to allow them to bring forward stalled sites. Such an approach could also be used to secure gains in land value particularly through the CPO powers set out through the New Towns Act.

The proposals for the infrastructure levy in the white paper are welcome in some respects. In particular, levying the levy at the end will obviate some of the issues around viability. The ability of local authorities to set the balance between affordable housing and infrastructure will end the current situation of affordable housing being the default option to be reduced. However there are risks with the payment in kind approach to affordable housing delivery. If it works as an incentive, developers may choose to pay too much of the levy as on-site affordable housing, leaving no funding for infrastructure. Conversely if developers are not incentivised, they may choose not to deliver any affordable housing on site and pay the whole levy. This would result in unbalanced development as well as leaving affordable delivery to the Local Authority. We know that on site delivery is a great deal more cost effective, so there is a risk that affordable housing delivery will fall.

The proposed levy means there would be no up front developer funding for infrastructure. Ensuring roads, schools and doctors are provided early in new development is crucial to creating successful, sustainable places and infrastructure providers expect up front funding. The white paper solution for local authorities to borrow against future levy receipts needs much further consideration - there is the potential that this could be too risky for local authorities with no guarantee that the funding received on completion of a development will cover the costs of the infrastructure the authority has funded early on. The cost of such borrowing would also need to be particularly preferential for local authorities to ensure value for money.

 

October 2020


[1] https://www.local.gov.uk/housing-backlog-more-million-homes-planning-permission-not-yet-built